- Starbucks announced Tuesday it is bringing back its reusable cups program on June 22. The company suspended the program in March 2020 in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- The reusable cup program relaunch features a new contactless process that uses a ceramic mug to transport clean reusable cups through the bar, reducing shared touchpoints between customers and employees. Starbucks is testing "safe options" for accepting personal reusable cups at the drive-thru, but is only accepting these cups in stores for now.
- Starbucks first introduced the reusable cup program in 1985 to help reduce its single-use cup waste. As part of its goal to reduce waste overall by 50% by 2030, the company began a pilot for a recyclable and compostable cup in the U.S. in 2019. The chain is also part of the NextGen Cup Challenge to create more sustainable and economically sound alternatives to traditional beverage containers.
As vaccination rates increase and more consumers return to restaurants, Starbucks is resuming its goal to be a resource-positive company with this new process and other initiatives around the world. But these programs also come at a time when consumer expectations about reuse and general sanitation are different than they were pre-pandemic. New Datassential research finds that 68% of diners want regular sanitation efforts to remain intact.
While the company stated in a blog post that it tested the touchless process in its Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific stores, that doesn't mean pandemic-wary consumers are ready to join in, despite scientific evidence that transmission of COVID-19 happens primarily via respiratory droplets versus surface contact.
In addition, Starbucks is testing a Borrow a Cup program in a handful of Seattle stores and in Starbucks Korea, which requires a $1 deposit for usage of a cup that is then returned to a contactless kiosk at a participating store when the diner is done with the cup. Diners can scan their Starbucks App at the kiosk to receive a $1 credit to their Starbucks Rewards account and 10 Bonus Stars. The program, however, has created some backlash on social media due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Diners' lingering health concerns could make the reusable cup program trickier to promote, despite a 10-cent discount incentive.
Last June, diners surveyed by Datassential said sanitation efforts would be their top concern before returning to restaurants. Recent SevenRooms research showed that most consumers still want safety protocols in place for their in-person dining events, including cleaning crews and personal protective equipment for employees.
While Starbucks has big ambitions in reducing waste, diner concern over shared cups — and personal containers coming into contact with employees — could be an obstacle. The company, however, could still be well positioned to eventually win over the growing number of consumers interested in sustainability efforts. According to HSBC Global Banking, the COVID-19 crisis has led to a greater awareness of environmental issues. Research from JP Morgan also shows that a majority of investors view the pandemic as a likely positive catalyst for such efforts and that stakeholders are "increasingly pricing in sustainability preferences," according to Jean-Xavier Hecker and Hugo Dubourg, co-heads of ESG & sustainability within J.P. Morgan EMEA Equity Research.